Here’s something humbling to think about the next time that you enjoy a thrilling and highly technical attraction:
“The show must go on.”
In the world of themed attractions, that means that the attraction must work ceaselessly for several hours a day, for months on end. As a guest at a park, it may not be flattering to consider that a dinosaur popped out of a waterfall to roar at hundreds of boats before yours, and will pop back under the water only to pop out again hundreds more times at every guest after you. It’s more fun–and the designers’ intention–for you to believe that the events are unfolding for you and those with you.
You get a tiny taste of this on rides that break down, or which have vehicles backed up waiting for a chance to unload passengers and bring on a fresh batch. You get a glimpse at the endless repetition experienced by castmember and robotic creature alike. But the show must go on, even if you can’t get off.
And top-dollar attractions have lots of moving parts susceptible to wear, malfunctions, or random happenstance. But the show must go on, even when some of the performers are broken. So your favorite park maintenance teams have another adage that they live by:
“Always have a contingency plan.”
In addition to daily, weekly, monthly and annual maintenance, every attraction is design to operate with tons of alternatives for when things go wrong. A special effect might not work one day, or the fog machines are out of fog-juice. The pump for a waterfall might be broken, or a pump for a hydraulic hose might be leaking. None of these will stop a show. Instead, the engineers have to find ways to deliver as high quality an experience as possible without shutting down an attraction, because, well, the show must go on.
And that brings me to this fuzzy fellow.
This is the famed Yeti that passengers encounter on Expedition Everest, the highly sophisticated thrill ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. He’s huge. Elsewhere, you can learn about the engineering wizardry behind his encounter. I’ll just drop one snippet: He’s so large, he sits on a platform that is structurally separate from the mountain and the coaster track, so that his motion doesn’t affect the rest of the ride.
The Design Decision
A couple of weeks ago, Alice and I encountered the Yeti at the Animal Kingdom, and saw just such a contingency plan. Fuzzy was simply not moving, but most guests would be hard pressed to notice this.
- First of all, you are racing past him at significant speed, so with a rapidly changing perspective, it’s difficult to tell if he’s moving or not.
- Secondly, his audio was still working just fine, so a dynamic pose and an angry roar accomplish half the effect.
- Finally, there was a strobe light.
A strobe? For real? Flickering light on the inside of a mountain? Isn’t that a cheap carnival-ride trick? Well, yes. And it worked. Strobes mess with our abilities to detect continuous motion, something that it turns out our eyeball-brain connection is optimized to process for us. So while it’s cheap, it’s very effective.
What a contingency plan! “Flashing flickering fixes frozen Fuzzy!”